It’s not surprising North Korea didn’t know what to make of Luke Elie and the rest of his American teammates when they first landed in Pyongyang a little over a week ago.
According to several sources, they were the first American basketball team to visit North Korea since the bitterly-divisive Korean War, which began 62 years ago today.
Not only was a visiting U.S. team an inconceivable entity for the most isolated nation in the world, but the affable Elie — who calls Dayton “his home away from home” say his Huber Heights parents — didn’t fit the American stereotype that is hammered into North Koreans from the time they first go to school.
“For North Koreans, the systematic indoctrination of anti-Americanism starts as early as kindergarten and is as much a part of the curriculum as is learning to count,” Jean H. Lee, the Korea Bureau Chief for The Associated Press, reported this weekend.
She told of visiting several kindergartens in Pyongyang where children were taught to hate Americans. At one school, one of many similarly-themed posters on the wall showed North Korean children using bayonets to attack a bandaged and bloody U.S. soldier. The slogan printed across the top said “We love playing military games knocking down the American bastards.”
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At another school, she said U.S. soldiers were depicted as “cruel, ghoulish barbarians” who pried out little girls’ teeth with pliers.
She told of watching one school principal initiate a favorite playground game when he pulled out a dummy of a U.S. soldier with a beaked nose and straw hair and instructing kids to batter the American with sticks and stones.
Meanwhile, on Friday at Poncheon, near the North Korean border, some 2,000 troops from the U.S. and South Korea engaged in the biggest, live-fire war games since the Korean War ended in 1953. North Korea was especially angered by that because a large North Korean flag was used to mark enemy territory during the bombing drills. On Saturday, the U.S. and South Korea began three days of naval exercises off the coast.
Part of this sabre rattling is in response to an April rocket launch by North Korea, which claimed it was trying to put a satellite in orbit. The attempt was condemned by Washington, D.C., and Seoul, which said it was a ruse to test the banned technology of its long-range missile system.
It was against that backdrop of escalating tensions that Elie pulled off the seemingly impossible. He brought a team of 14 Americans — most of them former college players and current coaches — to play a series of friendly games against teams the North Koreans would hand pick.
Elie had just returned to Beijing, China, a couple of days ago when I reached him by phone, and he admitted the trip hadn’t gone as planned ... for either side.
The games that had been promised against the North Koreans were canceled at the last minute. And the high-flying, rim-rattling dunk exhibition the North Koreans wanted to see out of the Americans didn’t happen either.
And yet Elie said the trip was a resounding success.
“We all agree it turned out better than any of us could ever have dreamed,” he said. “I’ve traveled all over the world, but this may be the most interesting place I’ve ever been. It’s certainly the most surreal. It was a life-altering trip. It was the most incredible week I’ve ever had.”
The thing that made this so special for the 30-year-old Elie and his teammates was that they got to interact with young North Korean basketball players through on-court teaching sessions and mixed-squad scrimmages.
On its website, the U.S State Department has stern warnings for any Americans trying to visit North Korea — fewer than 2,500 have since 1953 — and cautions “security personnel may view any unauthorized attempt you make to talk to a North Korean as espionage.”
Right from the start the North Koreans were trying to figure out exactly who Elie and his teammates were.
“When we first got there — the very first gym we walked into — a guy comes up and says, ‘You are professional players, right?’ ” Elie said with a chuckle. “I told him ‘I guess you could say that.’ And he said “Like the NBA,” and I said, ‘Not exactly.’ ”
North Koreans all know about the high-flying heroics of Michael Jordan, who was idolized by the late North Korean president Kim Jong Il, who was said to have had a video collection of nearly every game Jordan ever played.
Kim Jong Un has now taken over the presidency — following his father’s death in December — and he, too, is said to be a big NBA fan, especially partial to Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
As for Elie — who spent his high school years in South Korea near the DMZ where his father was the pastor of a church and a school administrator — he’s been a school teacher, coach and semipro player in South Korea and now China the past eight years.
“That first gym we went to probably was beautiful 50 years ago, but now the floor was kind of dangerous,” he said. “Still they lined us up to put on a dunking exhibition. Actually, though, there were just a few of us who dunk, but we figured we’d give them what they wanted.
“But our first guy went up and the floor kind of gave way beneath him and he almost broke his face. That’s when a coach jumped in and said, ‘There will be no more dunking today.’
“Instead we worked with middle school and high school kids and once they got over the jitters of playing with an American team, they settled down and played pretty intelligently. Actually we were shocked to see kids that age play as well as they did. And when we divided the kids up among us for a scrimmage one day, they even brought in students from the school to watch. It was great to watch the mood go from fear to curiosity to fun.”
He said he and his teammates still were under tight surveillance and subjected to “an overdose of anti-American Imperialism talk” on tours. “I’m a history teacher by trade so when I heard some of the things guides say and accept as fact, it cracked me up,” he said.
“But eventually I think people here were able to see we were not there to convert anybody to a particular ideal or religion. We just wanted to have a friendly understanding of each other.”
As for why the originally-planned games had been canceled, Elie chose diplomacy and would only say: “When we first set this up — because communication is so difficult with North Korea — the thing was a mystery on both sides.
“I don’t think they realized who we really were. But when they saw us get off the plane wearing our team gear, it was like, ‘Oh, they aren’t just random guys who put on sneakers and play.’ They saw we weren’t there just to take a tour. We came to work with them and learn about their lives and have an exchange. We wanted to promote good will and make a difference. And the more they were around us, the more they saw it.”
And so there are talks of Elie and his group going back next year. In fact, he hopes to return before that and help the North Koreans set up the tour.
“Let our governments hate each other, but we wanted to show we could separate ourselves as people and we could play basketball together and eat together and have fun together,” he said.
“That’s what happened and that’s why I think the trip was so positive. It was exciting — pretty heart-warming really — to see what the sport of basketball could accomplish in such a short amount of time.”